Patterico's Pontifications


About Southwest

Filed under: General — JVW @ 3:51 pm

[guest post by JVW]

I’m sure a lot of you followed the news over the weekend of the woes experience by Southwest Airlines (not to mention their passengers) as the carrier cancelled over one thousand flights, leaving passengers stranded. In many corners of conservative media it was popular to attribute these cancellations to a sick-out staged by pilots and/or flight crews to protest Southwest’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, which came into effect earlier this month. Not so, reports Dominic Pino writing at National Review Online: the real reason is just a run-of-the-mill business decision combined with bad luck:

Southwest does not have a hub-and-spoke route network like United or Delta or American. When you book a flight on United, for example, from Boston to Seattle, you might have a connection through Chicago O’Hare since that’s a major hub for United between those two destinations. From your point of view, it’s a flight from Boston to Seattle with a layover in Chicago. From United’s point of view, it’s one flight from Boston to Chicago and a second flight from Chicago to Seattle. That you happen to be on both flights is incidental to United for scheduling purposes. Further, if there’s bad weather in Boston and the flight can’t leave, it’s a problem for you, but it’s not a huge problem for United. There will be dozens of other planes at O’Hare, and schedulers will have other options to keep the network running. The Chicago-to-Seattle flight is completely unaffected since that was a totally different flight from United’s point of view anyway.

Southwest does not work this way. It mostly flies point-to-point between cities. Its planes fly long, sometimes convoluted routes across the country. So, for example, you might book a Southwest flight direct from Atlanta to Denver. That’s all you see. But from Southwest’s point of view, it’s a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta to Denver to Las Vegas to Houston. [. . . ] With these long routes, cancellations can cascade into major disruptions since people in four or five different cities can be dependent on the same flight, and there’s no hub to pull other planes from.

The hub-and-spoke and point-to-point scheduling systems each have advantages and disadvantages. Southwest is the largest American airline to not use the hub-and-spoke system, so it is able to offer direct flights between many cities that aren’t served non-stop by its competitors. The hub-and-spoke system’s major drawback is that if something does go wrong at a hub — say, a power outage or computer malfunction or inclement weather — it can throw off the entire network.

What happened to Southwest this weekend was that its point-to-point network was faced with a hub-and-spoke problem. Southwest’s network is not centralized on any one airport, but it is heavily concentrated in the state of Florida. Many people want to fly to Florida, and Florida has four (Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa) of the top-25 busiest airports in the country, the most of any single state. There was bad weather in Florida this past weekend, and “close to half of Southwest’s planes fly through Florida on any given day, so disruptions there can ripple out to the rest of the country,” reports the Wall Street Journal. So your hypothetical Southwest flight from Atlanta to Denver could be canceled because the plane that was supposed to fly it is stuck in Fort Lauderdale.

So given Southwest’s business model, why doesn’t this happen more often and why did it seem so particularly severe in this case? Mr. Pino informs us this is a function of Southwest’s recent strategy to cut into its competitors’ market share:

[. . . ] This time, however, Southwest stretched itself very thin. The air-travel market came back much faster than many airlines expected after the pandemic, and they had a tough time meeting demand.

Southwest saw its competitors off-balance and decided to strike. “‘Predatory and Opportunistic’: Southwest Airlines Seizes the Moment as Rivals Struggle” was a Wall Street Journal headline on November 16, 2020. Southwest expanded into new cities it hadn’t flown to before and scheduled more flights than its competitors. Aggressive strategy has long been Southwest’s corporate M.O., and it is the only American airline that consistently makes a profit (2020 was the first time it reported an annual loss in 48 years). So Southwest had good reason to believe that it could make this work.

The summer had other plans. During the pandemic, Southwest encouraged many of its employees to retire early. The Wall Street Journal reports, “Southwest had about 5,000 employees leave permanently and 11,000 go on extended leaves. Once demand shifted, the airline struggled to call them back and retrain them quickly enough, Southwest executives have said.” Southwest was running more flights than its competitors with fewer workers than it thought it would have. The airline offered more overtime pay, but it still wasn’t enough. With very little slack in its operations, ordinary disruptions became major problems.

The executives at Southwest are on an apology tour, though they don’t seem willing to directly admit they got caught leaning well over their skis (as we say in Colorado). They, along with the pilots union, forcefully deny there was any sick-out at play due to resistance from the vaccination policy, with the union announcing that there were no more employees calling in sick this past weekend than was the case in recent weekends. However, Mr. Pino suggests, in the end Southwest’s problems truly did stem from the pandemic. As he concludes:

[. . . ] They seem to be the consequence of a long series of business decisions in response to the pandemic recovery that didn’t work out as well as planned, with bad weather mixed in for good measure.

Shutting a complex system down is much easier than starting it back up. We’ve seen this dynamic across the economy as the patterns of specialization and trade that were so routine before the pandemic have been upended and reconstructed. The Southwest debacle is only the latest example of this recurring phenomenon as businesses and consumers do what they can to get back to normal.


25 Responses to “About Southwest”

  1. Shutting a complex system down is much easier than starting it back up.

    Something a whole lot of governors, especially in those states who had aggressive lockdowns, are learning first-hand.

    JVW (30a532)

  2. It’s going to take a lot more than this kerfuffle for me to sour on Southwest. It is my favorite airline. No baggage fees. No re-booking (a few keystrokes) fees. Easy website. And, they never outright rape you on fares.

    I’m amused by all the fussbudgets who don’t like Southwest because they don’t know where their seats will be. Waaaaaaaah. Get a pacifier.

    norcal (b9a35f)

  3. I’ll see the U.S.A. from my Chevrolet.

    mg (8cbc69)

  4. I’ll see it in my MG, mg.

    norcal (b9a35f)

  5. If you grow up on the South Side,you long for a day you can/need to fly on an airline other than Southwest or it’s erstwhile-Midway Airport co-tenant ATA (I had thought that Midway was sort of a true hub for them, but learn a little, learn a lot).

    urbanleftbehind (c073c9)

  6. If I grew up on the South Side, wouldn’t I be dead? 🙂

    norcal (b9a35f)

  7. I only wish Southwest would start flying out of Paine Field, which is a great little terminal and way less crowded than SeaTac.
    Alaska Air is fine, but I like the bags-fly-free and free rebooking policies.

    Paul Montagu (5de684)

  8. I never realized that Southwest did not have a hub like other airlines. Its also crazy that these airlines encouraged so many people to retire early. It’s not like we have an unlimited supply of pilots waiting in the wing and its not very easy to become a pilot experienced enough to fly for a commercial airline. Excellent breakdown of the issues.

    Biloxi MS Plumber (f20be2)

  9. You can’t fool us, JVW, we know it’s Lois Lerner and the Deep State on this obvious coverup.

    Kevin M (ab1c11)

  10. Lois “I’ll take the fifth” Lerner.

    norcal (b9a35f)

  11. You can’t fool us, JVW, we know it’s Lois Lerner and the Deep State on this obvious coverup.

    We’ll just have to ask Jen Psaki. She’ll tell us the honest truth, won’t she?

    JVW (30a532)

  12. Also, norcal and Paul Montagu, I too am a big fan of Southwest and I’m sorry to see them badly botch this particular situation.

    JVW (30a532)

  13. I for one am not a particular fan of Southwest. The last time I flew, they got me to pay extra for early boarding then let about 3 dozen people accompany a guy in a wheelchair. By the time I boaded all the good seats were taken and the overhead bins were full.

    No thanks. I’ll pay a bit extra for an assigned seat and a more honest process.

    Kevin M (ab1c11)

  14. Kevin,

    I never choose the “pay extra” option, and I’m fine with a seat at long as it’s not the last row, because the chairs there don’t recline. Saving money makes me happier than having a “good” seat. You can stick me in the middle. I don’t care. I’m very good at sleeping on airplanes.

    I don’t like the feeling of getting nickeled and dimed (or should I say “quartered and dollared? You’ve got to account for inflation) by the other airlines. They can shove their fees.

    norcal (b9a35f)

  15. You can stick me in the middle. I don’t care. I’m very good at sleeping on airplanes.

    I don’t pay those fees, usually. There are other ways to game flights. My usual flight (ABQ to LAX and back) is actually as cheap in “first class” as it is paying for bags in coach. If I have to have bags.

    And besides, I am more than a little bit claustrophobic and if I don’t get an aisle seat I cannot relax. A small amount of money saved isn’t worth the discomfort.

    Kevin M (ab1c11)

  16. Claustrophobic? Then it makes sense for you.

    I rode a hard-bench-seat, jam-packed train from Guangzhou to Beijing in 1989. I was the only foreign devil in the car. It took two or three days. The person next to me was sleeping with his/her head on my shoulder. People were stretched out on the floor under my feet. I won’t even give a description of the toilet. The black-market ticket was about $5 U.S. I guess you get what you pay for.

    Southwest is like paradise compared to that, and it’s much shorter.

    norcal (b9a35f)

  17. With Southwest flights, I just want to sit next to Mrs. Montagu (and yes, not the back row where you can’t recline), so I get my boarding pass 23 hours 59 minutes before the flight and I’m in the low B’s in the queue, where there are lots of seating choices. It works just fine.

    Paul Montagu (5de684)

  18. If it’s a two hour flight or less, I wouldn’t even care if I had to sit apart from my significant other. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. 🙂

    norcal (b9a35f)

  19. I love Southwest. It’s one of the few airlines that has never had a major crash.

    Unfortunately, it does not fly out of McAllen. Do you know why? Because decades ago the mayor of McAllen, Othal Brand was his name, had this small airline company that flew flights to Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Austin. He didn’t want to compete with Southwest, so he had the city ban flights from Southwest out of the McAllen airport. United, American, other airlines fly in and out of McAllen, but not Southwest. To catch a flight on Southwest, you would have to drive to the Harlingen airport, which is about 45 miles away, as opposed to the McAllen airport, which is only about 10 miles away.

    It sucks, but that’s the way it is. Local politics and the corruption therein.

    I’m sorry to hear that Southwest is having these problems.

    Gawain's Ghost (c6fd3b)

  20. That would be sweet, norcal.

    mg (8cbc69)

  21. Interesting update. I know the magasphere was very focused on this yesterday. They’re also pretty vocal about corrections not getting as much attention as original headlines. I wonder (not really) if they’ll put as much energy into updating their readers on this correction as they did the original. A quick search doesn’t show that they have.

    Time123 (9f42ee)

  22. That’s a pretty convoluted answer. There were saying weather and FAA issues. That way they think they won’t have to refund or pay for other flights on other airlines. No other airlines had weather issues and the FAA publicly stated there was no FAA issue. So now the convoluted BS about how different they are. B Fing S.

    They screwed up, and then lied about it. Terrible, horrible, no good PR department.

    DenZel (5a7c58)

  23. I’d say time will tell on what really caused this with one caveat. Jet Blue had the same problem a month ago and blamed weather etc and seems to have gotten away with it. People pointed out that weather issues should have impacted the other airlines equally and did not.

    I will say that I don’t think its the weather, which is where the problem lies. It feels like “the weather” was a lie by Jet Blue and a lie by Southwest to avoid responsibility.
    Once a story doesn’t feel like its adding up, its open to whatever interpretation from UFO’s to anit-vaxxers

    steveg (e81d76)

  24. Southwest Airlines CEO Says No Employees Will Be Fired Over Vaccine Mandate

    Total coincidence.

    Obudman (ee9b82)

  25. I used to think “reservation system outage” really meant coming in close on a potential terrorist and trying to flush him/her out before boarding.

    urbanleftbehind (fbbe8e)

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